Monday, March 14, 2011

Misunderstanding Universalism

You keep using that word...
One of the challenges of being in an oldline denomination is that gnawing sense that somehow we're no longer relevant.  Our conversations and the inner life of our community often seems isolated from the rest of the Jesus people around us.  For a community that likes to use the totally made up word "connectionalism," we often don't seem to be connected outside of ourselves.

But sometimes we are connected, despite ourselves.  As I listen in on the chatter both within the Presbyterian Church (USA) and without, I seem to be hearing a common theme playing out.  That theme has to do with the meaning and use of the term "Universalism."

 Among conservative Christians both within my church and without, there's a growing hue and cry about the creeping and pernicious influence of universalism.  Within my denomination the alarm is being sounded around our New Form of Government, a long overdue attempt to streamline our cumbersome Constitution.   That effort is what we Presbyterians are doing to fulfill Christ's mandate to go out into the world and make significant modifications to governing documents.  I think that's in Matthew somewhere.   Whichever way, many conservatives are alarmed that the new text might possibly imply openness to finding truth in other faiths.   Universalism!

Similarly, conservative Christians outside of our fellowship are full of burn-the-hipster-witch fury at the publication of Rob Bell's latest book, Love Wins.  They were cranking out the publicist-pleasing controversy before they'd even read it, but now that pre-publication book has been released, they're certain:  Rob Bell is a universalist.  Meaning, he's a heretic who goes past implying that non-Christians might not automatically burn in hell to actually sorta kinda saying it. 

This amazing conjunction of Presbyterian inside-baseball chatter and the rest of the American Christian world is striking not just because we are almost talking about the same things, but because we're all making exactly the same mistake.  If you have any sense of the history of theology, the term universalism does not even come close to meaning what conservative Christianity is now claiming it means.

Universalism is an old concept.  It surfaced early in the life of the church, perhaps most notably in the highly creative thought of Origen, an early Christian theologian from the second and third century who was ultimately declared heretical-ish.  Origen felt that God's love was so irresistable that no being, no matter how evil, could stand against it.  Even the demons, Satan, and Glenn Beck would eventually be reconciled with God.

That concept has resurfaced in Christianity numerous times throughout the two millenia of the faith, and bobbed up most notably in the post-Enlightenment era.   In the intellectual foment and classical liberality of the 17th and 18th centuries, the idea that all peoples would be saved gathered significant steam.  The radical tolerance and acceptance of other faiths that this implies still putters along amiably in Unitarian Universalist fellowships today.

Now, as I've said before, I'm not a universalist.  I just can't reconcile that "I'm OK, You're OK" concept with God's justice.  There are things that defy God's love and grace.  They will not stand in the face of God's all consuming fire.  Our actions are not without ultimate consequence.

But what I also can't reconcile with God's justice is this radically incorrect understanding of fundamentalist Christianity.  Universalism does not mean, as Inigo Montoya might say, what they think it means.

Here, they're not defining universalism as everyone being ultimately OK with God no matter who they are and what they do.  We're not talking about the lion and the lamb sitting down on a mossy, dew-speckled meadow in Thomas Kinkade heaven for an organic vegan picnic with Anne Frank and Hitler.

In the disputes both within and outside my fellowship, universalism is being redefined by fundamentalism as refusing to say "everyone who is not a professing Christian will burn in Hell forever."

It's a "hard biblical truth," they claim.  "We can't step back from proclaiming the Truth, no matter how hard it is to hear," they say, nodding earnestly.  But what is the truth of that truth?

It is a truth that stokes the fires of hell with people whose lives are full of kindness, who are peacemakers, and who manifest the ethic that Jesus lived and taught in their words and deeds.   It's a truth that defies Christ's own proclamation of the nature of the final judgment of all peoples.  It is a "truth" that stands radically opposed to the love of the stranger and the other.  It is a truth that assumes that God is not the font, source, and root of that love. 

That truth is certainly hard.  But it is not hard because it is the Gospel.  It hard because it is the farthest thing from good news.

It's amazing the things folks will say and do when they don't really understand something


  1. It's amazing what can be misconstrued as the gospel. It appears that the gospel is being portrayed here as 'people whose lives are full of kindness' must be accepted into the Kingdom, because... because what exactly?

    Certainly this isn't universalism. It is definitely not that. It is much more like the idea of getting into the Kingdom by the blood of sheep and goats, or perhaps by prayers on the street corner. It just happens to include a canon of works that seem so much... nicer.
    At least to a modern secularist. Something that non-Christians can be really, truly comfortable with, because it affirms threadbare, armchair, conceptions of good and evil, with no meaningful reference to God, His justice, grace, or authority.

  2. Side note: no changing of a form of government is going to get the church out doing mission. It may, however, get all the technical crap out of the way.

  3. @ BenK: No, not at all. The Gospel goes deeper than that. It speaks to an inward transformation, one that is known as it manifests outwardly.

    But let's look towards the canon of nice works I reference, why don't we? Oh, say, "loving your enemies." Or "loving your neighbor." Or "feeding the hungry." Or "clothing the naked." Or "doing what is right in the eyes of everyone."

    Comfortable, threadbare, armchair, secularist conceptions of the "good", eh, my brother?

  4. David,

    I think it all comes from a crisis of faith. An inability to trust God and a deep seated need to control, if not God, then the Message.

    Such is fear.

    The difference between fearing God and being afraid of God. Or just simply being afraid. Afraid that if you open your eyes it will all go away.

    So, I think, you are right. The Good News is that there is no longer any reason to be afraid. No reason to be afraid to touch the leper, or talking with the woman, or healing the blind on the Sabbath. Nor reason to be afraid of eating forbidden food, or entering the home of the Greek.

    No reason to be afraid of doing the right thing.

    At the end of the day, the Fundamentalists' main problem is that they cannot bring themselves to trust God. Universally.

    It's a crisis of faith.

  5. This ignores casting people out of the congregation, keeping tabs on the behavior of widows who want to be fed, eliminating idolatrous societies to include the children and livestock, striking Ananias and Sephira, cursing the fig tree, and so on.

    Loving your enemies implies you will have enemies, seems unlikely if you are doing what is right in the eyes of (literally) everyone; I agree that 'doing what is right in the eyes of everyone' is an interesting challenge to interpret if one chooses to ignore the normal sense of the phrase and instead ride pure logic to the ground.

    In the end, I can accept the Good News of the Kingdom is good for me not because it is good for everyone, but because I have chosen to subjugate myself to the Righteous King who has Legitimate Authority and Ultimate Power. People who choose to be the bad stewards... in the parable, disregard a number of messengers with the Good News, which for them becomes Bad News at some point.

  6. @ BenK: So you'd rather ride pure logic into the ground? For some reason, that Slim Pickens scene at the end of Dr. Strangelove comes to mind, as it so often does. ;)

    Way I see it...and I know you and I differ...the Good News of Jesus Christ is self evident, integrated into the fabric of God's creation and His created purpose for us. It is not "good for me." It's goodness is not contingent on my choice to accept it. It is good because it is Good. It is true because it is Truth.

    The Apostle Paul knew this, which is why he said to do what is good in the eyes of everyone, and why he said that love is the fulfillment of the law.

  7. It seems clear to me that Paul was saying to do what was 'good in the eyes of everyone' based on the assumption of the truths etched on each heart; but sometimes deeply obscured. Clearly there were at least a few people who didn't take what he did and preached as 'good' in their own eyes; but he didn't alter his message to make it good in their eyes.

    We don't necessarily differ in the statement that the Law of God is self-evident; but I don't believe it is always self-evident in fallen nature and to fallen man. Rather, there is the potential for deception, including a degree of self-deception; there is a hideous grace in being convicted of our own sin nature; to see what we have loved and clung to for what it is; to see some of our cherished self-identity as pure sin, that the law which seems to condemn us does condemn our 'identity' and requires us to identify ourselves with Christ instead.

    As for the Goodness: what is Good is not good to the person who sets himself against it. For that person, it is very very bad.

  8. @ Ben: Paul was certainly no shrinking violet when it came to taking on those who threatened the Gospel. In that, he was taking after his Master, whose Good News for the captive was not Good News for those who held them captive.

    You and I agree that there are souls who are set radically against Christ, and for whom the Kingdom Ethic (or "Law of Liberty," as James would put it) was hateful and to be resisted. For such souls, the fires of God's love are terrible indeed.

    But there are also those who on this side of the veil are not "us," but who would say and truly believe that Jesus was Good with a Capital Gee, and that his teachings were similarly Good. They do not speak the words of entrance into our fellowship. But with thought, word and deed, they honor our Master, and they welcome us into their homes as friends. They are not against us.

    It is the consigning of these souls to Hell that is alien to the nature of God, simply because the term "Love" has meaning.

  9. It sounds to me like Rahner revisited; but instead of answering the question of "those who haven't heard" the question is "those nice people who agree with me about all sorts of social issues, but haven't seen fit to actually bow to Christ the Lord, perhaps because they see people I don't like associated with His name."

    Of course, we couldn't possibly serve a God who would condemn those people whose 'lives are full of kindness.' Could we? It keeps returning to this question: does God take Authority, Loyalty and Holiness seriously, or does He just care about being nice? In short, what kinds of laws are broken daily by people who are fundamentally against God, and which ones don't really matter?

    It's a pretty fundamental problem which is why I keep returning to this description of the problem, illuminated by moral psychology (see Haidt).

    Anyway, you are correct, we actually agree on the issue of Hell, per se.

  10. @ Ben: Not "nice." "Nice" is treacle, lollipops, and pastel irrelevance. It's not a question of "agreeing with me about social issues," either. The issue is Love, which is rather more ferocious than we assume and absolutely essential to an authentic relationship with God. Authority and Loyalty and Holiness are all well and good, but without being radically defined by Love, they do not describe the nature of our relationship with God. I seem to recall the Accuser being fixated on Authority and Loyalty himself, and while we might not ascribe Holiness to Him, he is most certainly "set apart" in his own cold light.

    As for breaking the Law...well...I actually preached on that this week:

  11. I agree with the sermon; as far as I read into it. That is, I read it all, once, at a normal pace and not trying to be critical (which is very different from trying to not be critical). I also agree that Love is very important in all of this. What I don't agree with is the idea that just because God Loves people, He will/can ignore the fact that they fail to acknowledge His place in the universe, the loving things He has done, their duties with regard to Him, and the need to follow some instructions which don't always make utilitarian sense from a short term, myopic, materialistic perspective.
    In short, sometimes we need to do things that just don't make much sense, because we were told to and we acknowledge the loving authority of God over everything. Maybe it will make sense later, maybe much later. It may be seem to be a sacrifice in the present.

    Think about it: why are we told to stop at stop signs, even when there is nobody else visible at the intersection? Over and over, we waste precious seconds. It doesn't make sense. Sometimes, we break that law and it doesn't seem that anybody is getting hurt...

    Love for the other drivers doesn't motivate us in that moment, if we aren't looking far enough afield to see that, really, a pattern of bad behavior will hurt people. A pattern of disrespect for authority leads to bad outcomes. We are not competent to judge what is 'ok' and what isn't.

    This is ultimately why the orthodox positions won't make sense, and don't have to make sense. They don't have to seem tolerant, respectful or even loving to be right. Not that the laws shouldn't be followed in a loving manner. Stopping suddenly at the stoplight every time eventually gives people whiplash, and revving off the stop can be dangerous in its own way - following the laws can be done unlovingly and thus badly. But just because someone, or even everyone, feels like stop signs crimp their style doesn't mean that a loving God will change the rules to make their days sunny (for a time). God was pretty clear when he discussed thieving, gender and authority, sexuality, other religions (idolatry, witchcraft), covetousness, usury, and many other topics which get mangled in certain 'congregations' these days.

    They are flying through the four-way stops.

  12. @ Ben: I agree that there's a need, occasionally, to do things that don't seem to make a whole bunch of practical sense in the present in the service of God's Kingdom. Gosh, I dunno, for some reason the cross comes to mind.

    Thing is, those things are never hateful. Sure, the cross was a horror to the flesh, but the One dying on it had only words of mercy in his anguish. Orthodoxy that does not seem loving is not Orthodoxy. It's just clashing gongs and cymbals, because it has stripped out the central and greatest gift of the Holy Spirit in the service of...of what?

    Isn't our judgment such that we will judge both this world and angels?

  13. "seem loving."

    That's where I disagree. "orthodoxy that isn't loving" - "for God so loved the world."

    Cast out of the Garden didn't 'seem' loving. Forced to toil for bread? Pain in childbirth? Death? Any of this "seem loving?"

    There are people at this very moment who don't think a parent is doing something loving. That's because children are being put to bed. Elsewhere, courses are being flunked and teachers handing out bad grades - well earned. Standards of morality that condemn all sorts of activity are actively adhered to and taught. None of this 'seems loving' even though it is, in fact, the loving thing to do.

    For God so Loved the World that... and actually, everything He has done falls under that statement, from sending His Son to die (seems awful) to turning Sodom into salt (also seems awful) and telling husbands to love their wives (? doesn't seem so bad, does it, unless read by a feminist who claims that the entire institution of marriage is a kind of rape).

  14. @ Ben: No, being cast out of the garden doesn't "seem" loving. But God didn't cast us out of the perfect goodness of Eden. We did, by eating of the fruit of the knowledge of evil.

    That moral systems condemn patterns of behavior is true...but what meaning does that statement have? If my ethos demands that women be both submissive and fully veiled, is this loving simply because it is my ethos? If my moral code assumes that a particular race or people are inferior and/or evil, is subjugating or destroying those people a manifestation of love simply because it is "moral?" Of course not. "Ye shall know them by their fruit" presumes the capacity to discern and perceive.

    Again, both our morality as Christians and the way we interpret our sacred texts needs to be radically defined by the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth and his life, death, and resurrection.

  15. I agree, to a point. 'Natural consequences' has a nice ring to it; it makes people who have to punish feel less conflicted about it. Over and over, the torah talks about people taking their blood on themselves; so when they are stoned, it isn't murder.

    However, God created the system. The buck stops with him. He punishes or creates systems that punish. Some people have tried to argue that maybe these systems couldn't be created another way; there are necessary bounds on what God could have created. I don't buy it, but you might.

    As for the question of my moral system - when does a pattern of behavior start being an identity? How many people identify themselves as things they can, and should, change? 'I'm an Alcoholic' doesn't mean that this is a good thing. 'I'm a Mafia Hit Man' doesn't excuse me from capitol punishment.

    A person is a woman; great, wonderful. That comes with certain responsibilities, possibilities and limitations; so does being a man. Ignoring limitations is not loving. Limitations ignored quickly become impossible expectations. Meanwhile, ignoring possibilities is infantilizing, and ignoring responsibilities is disempowering.
    None of these are loving.

    Anyway, I guess I shouldn't hope to convince you, but I don't need to rely on 'my' moral code. I have God's moral code, and He put it in writing.

  16. @ BenK: Aye, He does write it. But not primarily as a law code or as these chicken scratch symbols we homo sapiens sapiens use to communicate concepts. First, it's part of the fabric of being itself. It is, as John tells us, the Logos, that Word that defines all things. The Second place he writes it is on us, in our "hearts," meaning our innermost being. Without the Second, we cannot see the holy purpose of the symbols that make up our text. That's not just pomo leftist me talking. It's right out of Calvin's Institutes.

    I'm interested in the focus on punishment. Where, in the interpersonal and social ethic that Jesus taught, do you see the mandate for that? In light of Christ's radical deepening of the Law in both the Sermon on the Mount and the Sermon on the Plain, and in light of his intervention in the execution of the adulteress, there would appear to be no warrant for it.

  17. Ok; I do, fairly regularly, consider the question of textual interpretation outside of the context of the traditions of the Church catholic, in unity. It's an issue, I'll give you that. Where you go, where Calvin went (and I think he was going there out of sinful brokenness), was to 'everyone did what is right in his own eyes' [and rationalized it by claiming that the Holy Spirit was inspiring him to misread the Holy Scriptures]. Actually, now that I think about it, this amounts to blaspheming the Holy Spirit, but no, I'm not going any further in that direction at the moment.

    Now, here is where you can claim I do the same thing, when I doubt the authenticity of the text of the woman caught in adultery, which isn't found in some early manuscripts; but, bowing to the later councils, which seem to accept it as canonical, I will address it in balance with the rest of scripture; that is to say, even beyond the OT, God punishes people for things. I happen to be focusing on it because it was in large part the topic of the original post. It isn't my main focus most of the time, thankfully. That would be a miserable life.
    However, the fact of God's judgement and punishment are both clear as day. The need for church discipline is stated and restated. Jesus changed many thing, but Lazarus still talked to someone in flames. The sword is given to the governor. Ananias and Sephira are still struck down. The sermon on the mount and the sermon on the plain don't become the whole of the law and the prophets, the gospel and the epistles. We may not understand why God set things up the way He did, but we can still love people by being His agents and unbending elements of the world to recognize His good order in it.